Jamaica's Sean Paul scaled the Billboard charts last August with ''Gimme the Light,'' a catchy toast to toking. But while its bulbous beat was a novelty to American ears, in Jamaica it was old news; Paul's song was one of many recorded on the same backing track, or riddim. ''That's the Buzz riddim,'' he says. ''There's quite a few good people on it.''
In Jamaica, producers create riddims, invite top vocalists to record songs using them, and collect an album's worth of material on each beat. The two major reggae labels -- Greensleeves and VP Records -- have released about 60 riddim albums in two years, with names like ''G-String,'' ''Martial Arts,'' and ''Liquid''; each features reggae stars ranging from Beenie Man to Sizzla.
Chris Cracknell, Greensleeves' A&R director, attributes the current riddim-album explosion to the complexities of the seven-inch-singles market, dancehall's traditional domain. ''They'd take weeks to press, and the sales have declined too much,'' he says. ''It became hard to justify [putting them out].''
The most popular of the current riddims is ''Diwali,'' a joyous, Indian-tinged beat produced by Steven ''Lenky'' Marsden. ''I made 'Diwali' in '98 or '99,'' remembers Lenky. ''At first, people said my song sounds [too] different, but now everyone want something different.'' Says Cracknell: ''This will be a hard one to follow. It's giving riddims cred outside of the specialty market.'' Indeed, the ''Diwali'' album, released on Greensleeves in August, has sold approximately 40,000 copies thus far, four times the average take.
And when a riddim is really successful, everyone benefits. ''When another artist do a song [on a riddim] and it blow up big, it gives me exposure, too,'' says Paul, ''and so everyone else who's on my riddim now, they can't hate on me.''